Sermon delivered on Ash Wednesday, February 17, 2021 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of tonight’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Joel 2.1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51; 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10; John 8.1-11.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40 day season we call Lent. It is a time for self-examination, penitence, self-denial, study, and preparation for Easter. Our Commination Service earlier today reminded us that something is terribly amiss in God’s world and our lives, that without the love, mercy, goodness, justice, and power of God, we remain hopelessly alienated from God and each other because we are all slaves to the power of Sin, that outside and malevolent power that is too strong for any of us to resist on our own power. And if we are not reconciled to God, we are undone forever in ways too terrible for us to imagine. Lent therefore is a time for us to focus not so much on ourselves but on the power of God manifested most clearly in the cross of our Lord Jesus. So tonight I want us to look at the dynamic of forgiveness and reconciliation that God the Father makes available to all through the work of God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, the interaction of grace, guilt, and gratitude. Until we understand this dynamic and what we are up against, we can never hope to observe a holy Lent (and beyond).
If we ever hope to be reconciled to God our Father so that we can live with him forever, we must first acknowledge our utter helplessness to fix ourselves so that we are no longer alienated from God. This means that we must first have the wisdom and humility (signs of God’s grace) to acknowledge the fact that we are all slaves to the power of Sin, that malevolent power that was unleashed in God’s good world when our first human ancestors rebelled in paradise. Too often we speak of our sins and think of them as misdeeds or acts of wrongdoing, the root cause of our alienation to God. This diminishes the problem of Sin to an absurdly reductionist level. This thinking implies that we can get right with God by simply adjusting our behavior or changing our thinking on certain things or making better choices—the current darling of excuses for our feel good culture. This is a fatal mistake on our part, however, because it implies that we can fix ourselves and our problems, that if we repent of our bad choices or thinking or behavior, our sin problem with God goes away. But the whole of Scripture makes very clear that there is something vastly more sinister going on. There is something desperately wrong in the world and our lives and we know it in our bones if we have the courage to be honest with ourselves. We don’t have the ability to defeat the power of Sin in our lives and we delude ourselves if we think otherwise. Don’t believe me? How are you doing with your new year’s resolutions six weeks on? Or how about those sins you confess? I bet you never do them again after you confess them, do you? Or how about your resolution to do better in your life? How is that working out for you? Try as we may, if we are honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that our efforts matter very little when it comes to turning away from our sins. Why? Because we are up against a power that is far greater than us, a power that seeks our destruction and undoing as God’s image-bearers, a power that must ultimately lead to our permanent death. The sins that we focus on are not the root cause of our alienation from God. Rather, just as a fever is a symptom of a larger problem, not the problem itself, our sins reflect our slavery to the power of Sin, again defined as an outside and malevolent force that has enslaved us. We acknowledged this very starkly in our Commination Service this noon when we acknowledged that without the cross of Jesus Christ and his presence in our lives, we are condemned to utter and complete destruction forever. This should both humble us and scare the hell out of us—literally. Until we get our thinking straight on this, we will surely have and live out a half-hearted faith (at best) because we live under the delusion that we can fix ourselves so that we are pleasing to God and set ourselves up for a self-righteousness complex. When we think like this, we inevitably dismiss the cross of Jesus Christ and the life-saving gift God the Father offers us all in and through his Son. But when we understand that Sin is a power we cannot overcome on our power and there is nothing we can do or say that will change our status before God, we are ready to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead.
This calls for us to be sober in our thinking about the power of Sin and see it as God sees it—a force that corrupts and destroys God’s precious image-bearers and good creation. This is why God hates Sin and this is why we can expect to receive God’s wrath on our sins: they are symptoms of the problem that God hates. God is first and foremost a God of love and if that is true, God must also be a God of justice. Why? Because God cannot and will not ultimately allow anything or anyone in his creation to continue corrupting it and his image-bearing creatures. God loves us too much to allow us to be victims of injustice and all the evil that flows from the power of Sin. Since we are powerless to break Sin’s grip on us, and since God is the only person who can free us from our slavery to it, God must intervene to destroy Sin and set things right, the very essence of justice. Otherwise, we would be doomed to be forever in Sin’s grip, catastrophically and permanently separated from God’s eternal love for us and excluded from God’s great heavenly banquet he has prepared for us so that we can enjoy him forever. It means that we would forever be trapped in our worst selves and that violence, greed, selfishness, cruelty, rapacity, suffering, hurt, brokenness, and alienation would continue to rule unchecked in our lives and God’s world. If God really is love, God cannot let this state of affairs go on forever, and when we understand this we can begin to see God’s justice as a positive thing. If we are going to follow God, we have to be sure that God loves us enough and has the requisite power to put all things to rights. To be sure, punishment is involved in this making-right process, but the overall thrust of God’s justice is restorative and healing because the heart of God his merciful, kind, generous, and loving. God does not create us to destroy us (What parent looks at his/her newborn baby for the first time with the intent of destroying it? The notion is absurd. If we fallen humans don’t think like this, why would God? Makes no sense!!); God created us so that we can enjoy him and rule his world faithfully and wisely on his behalf.
This knowledge will also help us think clearly about the dynamic of repentance and forgiveness. As we have seen, because we are helpless to free ourselves from our slavery to the power of Sin, our repentance is not enough to reconcile us to God because we will continue to sin even with repentance. Repent or not, unless our slavery to Sin is broken, we are doomed to continue living in the power of Sin. This is the guilt part of the dynamic or repentance and forgiveness. We see this clearly in our OT and gospel lessons tonight. The prophet calls God’s people together to collectively repent of their sin of idolatry, the worship of false gods that inevitably leads to all kinds of sins that will provoke God’s anger and wrath (idolatry is a primary sin because sooner or later we become what we worship). If God’s people turn away from (or repent of) worshiping false gods and turn to the one true God, then there was hope that God might relent on executing his wrath on his sinful people. Here we are reminded that we dare not presume God’s mercy on us, that God is free to show us wrath or mercy quite independently of what we resolve to do (or not do). In other words, God’s mercy is not contingent on repentance. The prophet believes God will be merciful because God has revealed his character to his people: God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. If God relents on punishing his people for their idolatry, it will be because of who God is, not because God’s people have repented.
Likewise in our gospel lesson. Notice that our Lord forgives the adulterous woman before calling her to repentance (go and sin no more). In this case God the Son showed mercy before the woman changed her behavior, reflecting the heart and character of his Father. This is the grace part of the grace, guilt, and gratitude dynamic of forgiveness and reconciliation between God and humans. Grace—God’s undeserved blessing, goodness, bounty, mercy, and forgiveness on us—precedes our awareness of sin, not vice-versa. This is because God’s character is eternal, preceding our slavery to Sin. In fact, without God tugging at our heart and mind, we would be unaware that we are alienated from God and stand under God’s just condemnation of our sin. Why? Because sin is a theological concept. People whose lives are devoid of God have no awareness that their behavior is offensive to God and that they are slaves to Sin’s power. Don’t believe me? Just check out Twitter or listen to the extreme rhetoric of self-righteousness that accompanies the sense of warped justice that invariably accompanies human thinking and behavior without the intervention of God. Simply put, if the Holy Spirit is at work in us he will make us aware of our awful unmediated state before God and our own sinfulness, our awareness of his Presence not withstanding. But here’s the thing. The moment we become aware of our sin captivity, we are already standing in God’s grace, ready to receive God’s healing love, mercy, and forgiveness because of God’s eternal nature! We see this dynamic expressed powerfully in the old favorite hymn, Amazing Grace. John Newton, who wrote the hymn, was a slave trader whose eyes were opened to the wickedness of his sin by God’s grace. He was a wretch who was saved, a man lost but now found, by the grace of God that preceded his evil deeds, a grace that called him to repentance. God’s grace always precedes our repentance because God and God’s character always precede us. God makes us aware of our slavery to Sin and the chasm it creates so that we will turn to him and let him heal and rescue us from our slavery.
And how did/does God do this? In the cross of Jesus Christ as St. Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson. Here is the essence of the Good News of Jesus Christ. God became human to suffer his own just and right punishment on our sin and wickedness himself so that God could spare us from suffering his wrath and eternal condemnation that would lead to our destruction. In the process the power of Sin is broken in us, only partially in this life but fully in the next (a topic for a different day and sermon). Our knowledge of the power of Sin and our slavery to it makes us realize that we don’t deserve this kindness and mercy. None of us do. But it is ours for the taking if we only have the humility and wisdom to believe it to be true, despite the fact that we cannot fully explain how God accomplished this all in the cross of Christ. But because we believe that Scripture is the word of God, we believe the promise to be true. God’s undeserved mercy, grace, love, and forgiveness lead us to a sense of profound and deep relief and gratitude because we realize we are no longer under God’s just condemnation and there is not a thing we did to deserve it. This is the gratitude part of the dynamic of God reconciling us to himself in Christ. We see it powerfully illustrated in our gospel lesson and we should take our cue from it. Imagine you are the woman who was dragged before Christ. You know your sin because you know God’s law; God has made himself known to you through it. And so you expect the worst, a death sentence for your sin of adultery. You are braced to feel the stones strike your body, slowly and painfully killing you (not unlike our sin does to us over the course of time). And then comes a remarkable surprise. Jesus pronounces you not guilty, despite that fact the he and you both know you are guilty of an awful sin. You have experienced God’s mercy and forgiveness, not because of who you are, but because of who God is. How would you feel? Stunned? Relieved? Grateful? All of the above and more, no doubt! He tells you to go and sin no more (he calls you to repent of your adultery), but his forgiveness is not contingent on that. Certainly the vast majority of us would be grateful for this reprieve and our gratitude would likely serve as ongoing motivation for leaving the adulterous life. She, like us, would certainly have to recall her sin and the great gift of forgiveness because life, well, gets in our way and distracts us so that we forget. That’s why we recall our sins and God’s mercy shown to us in Christ, not to make us feel bad (although that is really unavoidable on occasion), but to make us remember the love, mercy, grace, and faithfulness of God applied to our wickedness. When the woman remembered Christ’s intervention on her behalf, was she grateful? Did her gratitude help motivate her to repentance? We aren’t told, but our own experience suggests that it can and does, and this is what God desires from us. In this story, Christ does not tell us to suspend moral judgment by challenging those who brought the woman to him. Instead, he was exposing their hypocrisy and evil intent to trap him. In doing so, he was able to show mercy to the woman caught in adultery, calling her to repentance and giving her the motivation we all need to live our lives in imitation of our Lord and Savior, the essence of repentance and faithful living.
This is what it means to observe a holy Lent and beyond, my beloved. We are called to reflect on the fruit of the dynamic of repentance and forgiveness in our lives. We are called to understand that to be reconciled to God means trusting in the power, mercy, love, and character of God revealed supremely in Jesus Christ and not our own perceived (and often delusional) abilities to make ourselves right with God. It means we see clearly the truth about the human condition and our standing before God without the intervention of Christ. We needn’t fear the truth because the truth always sets us free to love and serve the Lord, thanking him for his love and kindness and justice, and asking his mercy and forgiveness when we miss the mark as we attempt to imitate him in the power of the Spirit as we live out our lives together. May we all observe a holy Lent and sing God’s praises with grateful hearts forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.